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Stepping back from the brink

An amendment that would have injected the Lobato school funding lawsuit into the 2012-13 school funding bill was withdrawn by its Democratic sponsor Thursday night after a Republican colleague warned it “has the potential to blow up the school finance act.”

The move was the highlight of a chaotic, at times bizarre, five-hour meeting that saw the Senate Education Committee jumping back and forth between bills and even revisiting measures it had voted on the day before.

The session also included a lecture on the proper use of commas by vice chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and it ended with a weepy farewell by committee members to three members who won’t be in the Senate next year.

But the centerpiece of the marathon was House Bill 12-1245, the bill that proposes $5.3 billion in school total program funding next year and keeps average statewide per pupil funding at the same level as this year – $6,474.24. It would be the first time in several years that average per-pupil funding hasn’t been cut, and the bill was the product of extensive legislative work and negotiations (see this item for more details).

Senate Ed chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, Thursday proposed an amendment that would have added a section to the bill calling for a study of the cost to comply with last year’s Lobato v. State ruling by Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport. The case is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. (See the Lobato archive for background.)

“The court ordered the legislature to design a new school finance system. Have we been doing that? No,” Bacon said.

But Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, wasn’t comfortable with the wording of Bacon’s proposed amendment, saying it focused too narrowly on the cost of recent reform mandates and not on the total cost of an effective education system.

Bacon said he understood the criticism, and the committee set the finance bill aside while legislative staff members – and education lobbyists – crafted some new language.

After stumbling through several other bills, the committee returned to the issue 90 minutes later.

Johnston liked the new language drafted by legislative lawyer Julie Pelegrine, but then a bigger objection surfaced.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, had just returned to the hearing room after presenting a bill in another committee.

The Lobato case is “in the courts, and the courts are going to make that decision,” said King, who testified as a witness for the state during last August’s trial. “I don’t think the legislature at this time can do a cost study … I think this has the potential to blow up the school finance act.”

Bacon replied, “Judge Rappaport did say we needed to make a start on it … there is some thought in this building that we have been given a charge by the judge to do something.”

King said, “I would just encourage you to withdraw this amendment … because I think it will taint the appeals process.”

“I hear you carefully, and I don’t want to blow up the entire act. … I will withdraw it now, but I can’t guarantee I won’t offer it again, or someone else will offer it,” Bacon said. The legislature has four working days left in the 2012 session.

Opinions about the Lobato case have a partisan tone in the legislature because Republicans generally oppose the judge’s ruling while Democrats support it.

Some Democrats have been agitating for the legislature to pay more attention to the case, which has received scant mention during the 2012 session. However, earlier this week House Republican leaders introduced a resolution that calls for the legislature to intervene in the case on the state’s side.

The state’s written appeal brief is due to the Colorado Supreme Court next month, and the high court could rule as early as next autumn.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, demonstrated the proper use of commas.
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, demonstrated the proper use of commas.

After the school finance issue was settled, Hudak provided a light but odd note when she took “a moment of personal privilege” and launched into one of her pet peeves – misuse of commas in a series. The former English teacher had spotted an error in a staff document and proceeded to a chalkboard in the hearing room to scratch out an example of proper usage.

Lobbyists, punchy from the long hearing, guffawed and took pictures of Hudak with their phones.

And at the end of the long session, members got a little misty-eyed as they bid farewell to three veteran members who are leaving the legislature. Those are Bacon, King and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, who have been major figures on education issues for years. It was the committee’s last scheduled meeting of the 2012 session.

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